I just spent five weeks in Beijing, China, learning mandarin. The particular summer program I was with is not through school but an elective immersion experience. I attended 4-5 Chinese classes a day but my day was so much more than just my classes. The program is structured such that we also gained a flavor of the place and culture- we went sight seeing as a group and participated in Chinese extra curricular activities (such as Tai Chi and calligraphy). Additionally, we stayed with Chinese host families and adapted to their schedule.
As I went about my first week, I was struck by how positive from an education standpoint the program is. For instance, we are graded on our participation, homework and quizzes but the grades have no real significance. As a result, students disregard the grade, showing its minimal actual value, and instead focus on what truly matters- learning (actually understanding, utilizing and recognizing new characters or grammar structures instead of cramming and just memorizing the strokes for a dictatoon) the grammar and vocab such that one’s grasp on the language improved.
I thought it was telling that in the subway the other day, a classmate of mine exclaimed “Our first homework assignment is coming in handy now!” The program specifically presents real life situations and which we can practice and use as we make our way around the city. Additonally, staying with a host family means that we must speak Chinese if we are to eat, shower and live as normally as possible. I found that the lessons and vocab we learned in class were useful as I tried to communicate with my host family. As another way of applying the concepts we learn to Chinese daily life, each week we embark on an ILP, integrated learning project, where we go out into the city with a mission (tied to some part of the city’s history or Beijing culture) and put into practice our speaking skills as we are “forced” (for want of a better word) to interview locals in Chinese and report back to our classes in Chinese. This exercise not only helps with our practical language skills but again gives us a flavor of how the Chinese think and how they go about their daily lives.
To me this is a great example of how to do school right. Minimal focus on the grades and a greater focus on the learning behind the grade as well as learning outside of the grade. All of us students here knew coming in that the courses would be graded, but also that these grades have no import. Yet we still continued learning. Doesn’t that say something about the innate desire students have to learn about something they’re interested in? Or that school doesn’t have to be all about the grade in order to have students learn and care about a subject? If the classes are real world and practical enough, students can see the value in the course and then it becomes more than just a grade. This experience so far in China has shown me that practical teaching which influences and enriches a person is more powerful than numbers on a paper which serve only to simplify a complexity and categorize what can’t be contained.